An Island Drink With California Roots: The Mai Tai Turns 75

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Victor Bergeron behind the bar at Trader Vic's.  (Courtesy of Eve Bergeron)

You’re sitting on the beach, sand between your toes, sunglasses on. What else could make this picture complete? How about a Mai Tai?

This rum cocktail probably makes you think Hawaii, though a lot of people and places have claimed the drink as their own. But where did it really come from? I set off on a mission to find out.

First, I headed to a place that bills itself as the "Home of the Original Mai Tai." Trader Vic’s is tucked away on the shores of San Francisco Bay, in Emeryville. On one side of the restaurant chain’s flagship is the marina, on the other, the Bay Bridge.

According to  Daniel Veliz, Trader Vic's corporate beverage director, they served 40,000 Mai Tais last year in this location alone.

But what’s in an Original Trader Vic's Mai Tai? As Veliz began mixing one for me, he said that it has just five ingredients. “Fresh lime, orgeat (almond) syrup, a touch of rock candy syrup, orange curacao, and 2 ounces of amber rum," he said.

The Original Trader Vic's Mai Tai.
The Original Trader Vic's Mai Tai. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

He gave it all a shake and poured it into a glass, then added a spent lime wedge and a touch of mint for garnish. And unlike some of the Mai Tais I’ve seen, there was no rum float, no pineapple or orange juice. And it wasn't red. He presented a drink that was a lovely golden brown.  

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The Vic behind Trader Vic’s was Victor Bergeron, who claimed he invented the drink in 1944. His granddaughter, Eve Bergeron, told me he created the cocktail and asked some visiting friends from Tahiti — Ham and Carrie Guild — to try it. After Carrie tasted it, she exclaimed “Mai Tai roa ae!” which  means " ‘awesome' in Tahiti," Veliz explained. And thus the drink was named.

Tiki historian and author Jeff  "Beachbum" Berry said the story of the Mai Tai  started at 65th Street and San Pablo Avenue in Oakland. That’s where Bergeron opened a little saloon in 1934 called Hinky Dinks, named after a risque ditty that was popular at the time.

Victor Bergeron opened Hinky Dinks at 65th and San Pablo in Oakland in 1934.
Victor Bergeron opened Hinky Dinks at 65th and San Pablo in Oakland in 1934. (Courtesy of Eve Bergeron)

The business was successful, but Vic was interested in the tropical-themed drinks he started to see in a few spots in his native San Francisco. He set off to learn from the masters, stopping in New Orleans and the Caribbean.

In 1938, he spent a week at the legendary Havana bar, La Floridita, trying to learn all he could from the man known as the "Cocktail King," Constantino Ribalaigua Vert.   

“One of Constantino’s famous drinks was called the Golden Gloves and (it) calls for gold Jamaican rum, orange juice, orange curacao, lime juice and sugar," explained Berry. "Now if you add orgeat syrup to that you have a Mai Tai more or less. And that could also have been Vic's inspiration."

One of Trader Vic's early menus features nods to his influences, including Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles and La Floridita in Havana.
One of Trader Vic's early menus features a nod to his influences, including Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles and La Floridita in Havana. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

When Bergeron returned to Oakland, he added the drinks he learned to make during his travels to the Hinky Dinks' menu. “We went to work and made up a lot of new ones, ones that would sell in America,” he wrote in his 1973 autobiography, "Frankly Speaking."

But Bergeron also found inspiration closer to home at a Los Angeles bar called Don the Beachcomber, according to Martin Cate, owner of San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove and  a former Trader Vic’s bartender.   

Martin Cate at his bar, Smuggler's Cove, in San Francisco.
Martin Cate at his bar, Smuggler's Cove, in San Francisco. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

"[It was] absolutely all the rage from almost day one when it opened in Hollywood," said Cate. "[Vic] traveled down and he not only fell in love with the place, he would try to grill bartenders all day long about what was there." 

Opened in 1933, Don the Beachcomber was essentially the first tiki bar, according to cocktail historians. And it served a couple of drinks that may have been of interest to Vic Bergeron, including the Q.B. Cooler, which Berry said tasted like a Mai Tai. There was even a drink called the Mai Tai Swizzle in the early '30s, but it was off the menu by the time Bergeron visited.

But owner Donn Beach was notoriously protective and had his bartenders mix drinks from bottles labeled with numbers. Even though Bergeron didn’t walk away with any of Donn Beach’s secret recipes, he bought some decor from him, according to Cate. The visit was a catalyst.

“When I got back to Oakland and told my wife what I had seen, we agreed to change the name of our restaurant and change the decor,” Bergeron wrote in his autobiography. “We decided Hinky Dinks was a junky name and that the place should be named after someone we could tell a story about. My wife suggested 'Trader Vic’s' because I was always making a trade with someone. Fine, I became Trader Vic.”

An early Trader Vic menu.
An early Trader Vic menu. (Suzie Racho/KQED)

So Hinky Dinks became Trader Vic’s, and business boomed. Bergeron’s pal, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, helped drive its popularity, exclaiming “the best restaurant in San Francisco is in Oakland.” But the Mai Tai itself wasn’t the draw — it was just one of many drinks on Vic’s expansive menu.

Martin Cate said that it wasn’t until 1953, nearly 10 years after it was first introduced,  that the cocktail took a cruise to Hawaii, where the Mai Tai really became the Mai Tai.

“He sent the recipe on board the Matson steamship lines, which were sailing out of San Francisco to Hawaii starting  in the early 1950s,” Cate said. “The Mai Tai was on the menu because they asked Vic to not only do the menu for the ships, but also for their hotel, the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki. And when the Mai Tai  got to Hawaii, it mutated basically into something Hawaiian, meaning, namely, pineapple juice.”

Victor Bergeron aka Trader Vic.
Victor Bergeron aka Trader Vic. (Courtesy of Eve Bergeron)

Jeff Berry said travel writers picked up on it and the Mai Tai basically went viral. And because the recipe wouldn’t be published until two decades later,  restaurants and bars put their own spin on the drink.

“A Mai Tai became sort of like the symbol of your Hawaiian vacation,” said Berry. “It was like paradise in a glass. I think that name more than anything else is the reason why that happened.”

So who’s the true originator of the Mai Tai? Was it Constantino Ribalaigua Vert in Cuba? Donn Beach in L.A.? Or Victor Bergeron in Oakland?

Well, for most cocktail historians, including Martin Cate and Jeff Berry, the original Mai Tai has just five ingredients and was created in Oakland by Victor Bergeron.

As for Vic? As he wrote in his autobiography: “Anybody who says I didn't create this drink is a dirty stinker.”

So raise a glass to the Mai Tai, which turns 75 in August.